If the Republicans “drove the country into a ditch,” President Obama shot across the road into another one. It helps to understand the landscape. Going into the 2000 presidential election, according to the Pew Research Center, 35% of voters self-identified themselves as Democrats, 31% as Republicans, and 34% as Independents. By the 2004 elections, 35% still identified themselves as Democrats, 33% as Republicans, and 32% as Independents. Just before the 2008 election, Democrats were up to 36%, Republicans down to 27%, and Independents led everybody with 37%. The ditch was real. Republicans had picked up two points during Mr Bush’s first term, but lost six during his second.
Add to that, in 2000, Independents split evenly at 11% leaning toward Democrats and 11% leaning toward Republicans; in 2004 it was 12% leaning toward Democrats and 11% still leaning toward Republicans. For the 2008 elections, 15% of Independents leaned Democratic while only 10% were leaning toward Republicans. A 9% partisan gap coupled with a 5% gap among Independents. It was a precipitous drop in support.
Today the picture is strikingly different. 33.5% of likely voters identify themselves as Republicans, 33.5% as Independents, and 33.0% as Democrats. During the month of August, the number of Independents grew from 32.1% to 33.5%, the highest level in seven years of tracking. While that number grew during the debt ceiling debate, the president’s party lost support, dropping from 34.8% to 33.0%, the lowest number in seven years of tracking. Overall, 45% of voters say they at least somewhat approve of the president’s job performance (22% Strongly Approve, 23% Somewhat Approve). 53% at least somewhat disapprove (42% Strongly Disapprove, 11% Somewhat Disapprove). Eleven percent fewer than self-declared Democrats don’t strongly support the job that President Obama is doing, while 10.5% over-and-above self-declared Republicans strongly disapprove of the job he’s doing. A majority of likely voters at least somewhat disapprove. The ditch is real.
The Obama bubble has popped.
His base will vote for him – they’ve got nowhere else to go. The Republican base will support whatever candidate emerges – they’ve got nowhere else to go. The problem for both sides is the level of enthusiasm. Normally, a light turnout will favor an incumbent, but not necessarily this time. Neither Democrats nor Republicans can just tread water until the election, both must find ways to enthuse their base and persuade Independents. And that’s tricky business. You can’t just rile up one base – to throw red meat to either is to energize the other as well. Independents are hard to artificially persuade – they tend to read events and evaluate results.
In just three years, Democrats have lost 2.5%, Independents have lost 3.5%, and Republicans have gained 6.5%. A statistically significant number of Democrats have become fence-sitters, and an even larger number of fence-sitters are now identifying with Republicans. That’s seismic.
President Obama finally has a record – 9% unemployment, flat GDP, a banana republic level of debt and endless projected deficits – but he can’t run on it. All he can do is somehow rally his base more than their base, and demonize his opposition. That may not work, depending on how the Republicans respond to their own funk.
For their part, the GOP is overlooking the “good” in search of the “perfect.” By all measure, Mitt Romney would beat President Obama if the election were held today, meaning that in all probability, he would in November 2012 as well – nothing Obama’s team is proposing is new or different, meaning that hiring will remain below replacement level, GDP growth will remain anemic, and, not having produced a budget yet again, nothing is going to cut deficits or debt between now and then.
Against this backdrop, Republicans are tilting at Reagan’s image, searching for another galvanizing conservative who can charm the press and public alike. They don’t need to. All they need is someone who comes across as sincere in his proposals, capable of running a huge bureaucracy, and has the gumption to stand up to demonization and a hostile press while being gracious about it all.
They’ve got one of those now.
 Statistics from: Fewer Voters Identify Themselves as Republicans, Pew Research Center for the People & the Press, March 20 2008. Pew Research polls registered voters.
 Partisan Trends, Rasmussen Reports, September 1 2011. Rasmussen polls likely voters.
 Daily Presidential Tracking Poll, Rasmussen Reports, September 27 2011.
 The SuperCommittee, not even reporting out until Thanksgiving, won’t have enough time to be effective before the next November, assuming the president uses their ideas, regardless of his history of ignoring “Blue Ribbon Panels” in the past.